If I could only mention one thing that I’ve learned over summer, it would be that I’ve come to appreciate the strong philosophical backing behind Christianity. This was the outcome of sharing my faith with many people, and people with different backgrounds and experiences challenging what I believe in (which is great, because this means they are interested in broader issues). Through the process of sharing, I also had to think more about issues that I’ve neglected in the Christian faith, so this was great for personal learning and growth too.
Perhaps, I should first talk about what “philosophical backing” implies. Quite interestingly, the first lecture I had this term was a philosophy lecture (because I’m taking the history and philosophy of economics paper this year). As the lecturer went over the overview of what we would cover in the philosophy part of the course, she reminded me of three parts that commonly constitute a philosophy: ontology, epistemology, and ethics. Ontology is a study of what things really are; epistemology is the study of knowledge and how we obtain what we call knowledge; ethics is what we do with things. In most philosophies, ethics would follow logically from how the ontology and epistemology have been set out (if we were to look at Mill and Kant more holistically). As such, what I mean by a philosophical backing behind a faith is that what the religion espouses as ethics is grounded in its ontology and epistemology.
I really appreciated the ethical backing behind Christianity when I was in school. I did my school attachment over summer (as a teaching scholar) in a Presbyterian school, so the students had morning devotions. Parents of non-Christian students send their children to Christian schools because of the values that they espouse. There was one week where the school was talking about resilience. Almost all schools will tell their students to be resilient in some way, but this school took it from an interesting angle. The vice-principal shared that we should be resilient because God is faithful. I found this a far more convincing argument for resilience: if we take it from a secular perspective, we often tell children to try until they succeed – possibly trying would increase the probability of success (perhaps infinitely trying will reach P=1 at the limit so you have certainty of success when you have infinite trials to exhaust all possibilities). But surely, we don’t want children to spend their youth on what is unfruitful. Now, if we tell children that they should be resilient because God is faithful, there is certainty of success in the first trial already, because God never fails. The success may not be what we think it is, but God works for the good for those who love him. That’s why we choose to be resilient – because of His promise. As such, it is evident that it is with the ontological backing of who God is that the ethics we espouse becomes far more meaningful.
As I was helping out with the orientation camp, I had a couple of interesting conversations with freshers who are non-Christians (and readily claim to be so). Since my group were mostly scientists, there was a general naturalistic perspective held about religion. Religion is constructed by human beings to account for things they see in nature; nature evolved organically, and came from a single dot followed by a big bang. That seems like a perfectly logical account of how the physical world works, but how do we account for human action? That’s where economists and psychologists come in – we do something so that we can optimise our utility, or feel good about ourselves. Much of our social norms are then built on the Hobbesian view of the world – we have a social contract of ethics so that we would not kill each other. Are people really that selfish and using each other just to get ahead without genuine care for each other? We need someone with a very cold heart in order to say that. There is love, and naturalism can’t account for that easily. But the idea that we love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19) gives a better account of why we can love. Perhaps, we might advocate that murder and theft are wrong based on social contract (to keep humans functional as a species), but we have a much stronger moral impetus when God says that these things are wrong (and our consciences, as created by God, support it). As such, after understanding the ontological and epistemic backing of God's revelation and His love, it is so much more meaningful to advocate for doing the right thing.
Finally, I’ve learned what identity really means. Since university students are in a season of their lives when they ask “who am I?”, it seems appropriate to understand what identity is. After talking to so many people over summer, I’ve had several responses. Some people say that it is a social construct of similarities and differences – when you hold an identity, you associate yourself with a group of people who bears this similar trait and distance yourself from people that do not hold this trait (e.g. race). Some people say that identity is a collection of actions – one acts in particular ways to build up his portfolio, and this is what defines his identity. This account cannot explain what led to these actions initially though. Some people say that identity is how people see us, so we have absolutely no control over who we are. This also implies that we don’t have any one identity, since different people see us differently. But this is what I believe: identity is how God sees us. And God made all of us in His image, and He loves us, and He wants us to be His children. This completely changes how we view people. Rather than looking at people on the street as the output of certain inputs and functions, I see them as people made in the image of God and each one of them is precious in God’s eyes. That was also why I cared so much for each of the freshers I met and why I wanted to bring out the best in them. Similarly, in light of all our failures, when we look at who we fundamentally are, if we know Christ, that brings so much comfort.
In this season as we are reaching out to people, it is of great comfort that many things that we advocate and believe in are internally consistent, and are backed up by God himself! And whenever we fear reaching out, we should always remember who we fundamentally are - Children of God.